Don't judge an album by its cover (or do)

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Monday, November 13, 2017 - 5:25pm

As someone who spends arguably too much time listening to music, I wake up Friday mornings and immediately browse the “New Music” tab of Apple Music (coming soon: an opinion article arguing Apple Music over Spotify). Despite your streaming platform preference — or maybe you have higher moral standards than I and actually purchase music — you might do something similar. You scroll through and add the albums and singles you knew were coming out or the ones from artists you’ve liked previously or the ones your friend said you had to hear.

Every Friday I do this. I’ve also made a habit of adding an extra album, generally a work previously unknown to me. Despite this seemingly blind selection, my choice is far from random. Like walking through the library, looking at book covers, trying to decide what to read next, I explore the new albums and glean as much as I possibly can from the artist name, album title and cover art.

I know what I like and I know what I don’t like. My mind has been trained from the thousands of album covers I’ve seen to be able to say yes or no to an album after considering it for just a few seconds. Is someone wearing a cowboy hat on the cover? Skip. Are there psychedelic neon computer-generated graphics and overstated text? Skip.

In general, album artwork adheres to the genre of the music on that album. The two examples I just mentioned would correspond with country and EDM genres, respectively. Similarly, it’s pretty safe to assume that a cover with a highly-tattooed man wearing an excessive amount of expensive jewelry on the cover belongs to a rap album and a portrait photograph with a dose of sexuality is probably a pop album.

But further than being able to judge an album’s genre from its cover art, can we make any assumptions on the quality of the album?

In order to claim a correlation between artwork and music, we must assume that the musical artist has a significant level of artistic autonomy over the visual that accompanies their work. While this cannot be taken for granted due to the strength of corporate influence in the music industry, popular artists generally are afforded a wide bandwidth of freedom. So let’s suppose the artist is highly involved in the creation and selection of cover art.

In order to draw parallels between the artistic quality of the cover art and that of the music, I think it’s helpful to examine a categorization of artwork based on conception. Are these works directly from the musical artist? Are they collaborations? Did the artist simply pick their favorite from a photoshoot?

A small set of musical artists exercise their visual arts prowess and construct their own album artwork. Notably, Joni Mitchell, a classically trained painter, was the hand behind the iconic cover of Ladies of the Canyon. The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne painted the front of standout album Yoshimi Battle the Pink Robots. Fiona Apple hastily sketched the accompaniment to her 2012 album The Idler Wheel… and took the photograph that adorns 2005 LP Extraordinary Machine. The correlation between music and art quality is most direct for these artists: both products are manifested in the same brain.

Many albums feature artwork that is a result of visual artists and musical artists working together. The tradition spans from Andy Warhol’s iconic banana pop art cover for The Velvet Underground and Nico’s self-titled 1967 debut to Turner prize winner Wolfgang Tillman’s photograph featured on the front of Frank Ocean’s most recent LP Blonde.

These cases are harder to make conjectures about since we cannot understand the extent of the musician’s influence. Still, the same can be said about musical collaborations. Few albums, if any, are made in a vacuum, yet we generally take the feature artist’s involvement for granted. We believe Kanye West is the driving force behind The Life of Pablo even though the writing and production credits are a mile long. There is ground for arguing cover art is similar; the musician seeks out an artist to assist them in representing their ideas visually rather than musically.

The level of this involvement ranges in both role and influence. In photography, the musician does not take the picture. In graphics, the musician probably does not know how to use the required software. In painting, the musician might have no talent. No matter if they have the necessary practical skill, the musical artist likely directs the concept and has the final word on the composition. Much like the music on the record, if the cover art does not meet the musician’s standards then it we will never see it. Therefore, an artist that releases incredible music will most likely ensure their cover art reaches the same bar.

Still, it’s important to be wary of misconception. The age-old cliche “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover” still stands with a degree of truth. We can undeniably glean some insight into an album from its cover and often times there is strong correlation between good album art and good music. Regardless of the number of works that fit this trend there will always be outliers. Ultimately the best test to determine the quality of an album is still to actually listen to it.